Playing With Itzhak

By Mark E. Smith

My entire life, I’ve been in awe of violinist, Itzhak Pearlman, never having known music without him. My late mother was a childhood prodigy violinist, including having been among the youngest members of the San Francisco Symphony. What made her story even more remarkable was that her father was in prison, and her mother was a heroin addict and prostitute. My mother told me how when she came home from school on days when her mom was shooting up, she’d go in her room and practice the violin for hours, making any pain from her home life float away with each note.

However, as these stories too often unfold, by the time my mother was 19, she was pregnant and living in Germany with my father who was stationed in the army there, right before he headed to fight in Viet Nam. And, through my mother’s subsequent personal demons like alcoholism, she never picked up a violin again.

Still, her entire life, my mother loved the violin, and even in her darkest days decades later, she could shut her eyes, dazed on the couch from a pint of vodka, and astoundingly recall every note of an all-Beethoven program, humming it as though, in her mind, she was 15 again, in a beautiful gown, sitting upright on stage, playing every note on her beloved violin. As I grew up, it was undeniable to me even at a young age that my mother’s destiny as a concert violinist was tragically derailed – partly by uncontrollable circumstance, partly from her own horrendous decisions.

Still, among the greatest gifts that my mother shared with me was violinist, Itzhak Pearlman. For my mother and me, Itzhak represented our two worlds combined – that is, the violin and disability. See, as most know, Itzhak isn’t just among the greatest violinists of our time, but a polio survivor, relying on leg braces, crutches, and a mobility scooter.

I remember being in my manual wheelchair – maybe I was six years old? – meeting Itzhak back stage after a concert, a meeting somehow arranged by my mother. He awkwardly walked up to me in his cage-like leg braces, stopping directly in front of me. He seemed not just larger-than-life in spirit, but in physicality – a giant of a man, as if his head touched the sky-high ceiling of the auditorium.

Itzhak looked down at me, smiling, grasping my chin with his hand. “Handsome boy,” he said with an accent.

Then, Itzhak placed his hand on my forehead, closed his eyes, and said something in a language that I didn’t recognize. Was it a prayer?

I’ll never know what Itzhak said to me that day in a langauge that I didn’t understand, and what’s even more puzzeling to me today was how my mother arranged the meeting – I never thought to ask about that extraordinary event prior to her death. Nonetheless, what I recall most about meeting Itzhak was that his presence was easily defined through my eyes as a child: Greatness. Maybe it was the connection to my mother, or maybe I was at an impressionable age, but no other person has struck me with the true sense of greatness that I recognized in Itzhak – he has charisma beyond what can be explained. And, when witnessed in-person, his spirit is all-consuming.

With Itzhak being an astounding violinist and presence, his celebrity has made him iconic, worthy of his own urban legend. And, while the urban legend is, of course, completely untrue, it’s a worthy tale retold, no less – one that hits home a great life tenet:

On November 8, 1995, an entire audience got to witness Itzhak’s divine spirit first-hand. Like any other concert, Itzhak came onto stage with his crutches, took his seat, put his violin to his chin, and began playing. But, after the first few bars – strokes of his bow – a string broke on his 1714 Soil Stradivarius violin, the pop ricocheting through Lincoln Center’s Fisher Hall. In such a circumstance, a violinist must grab another violin or re-string the instrument, as such complex compositions can’t be played on three strings – or so anyone thought.

However, rather than stopping, Itzhak continued playing – the whole symphony – never missing a note. He re-modulated and recomposed each piece in real-time, in his head, redefining the arcs of his bow to eliminate the need of the fourth string. The mesmerized crowd leaped to ovation at the end.

But, Itzhak, in his humbleness, calmed the audience, and simply noted, “You know, sometimes it’s an artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”

Did Itzhak really play an entire symphony concert on three strings? No – again, it’s an urban legend. Yet, there’s absolute truth in the fact that it should be all of our tasks to find out how much we can accomplish with what we have left at any point in life. Maybe we face disability, an ended relationship, a job loss, or a tough business climate – the list goes on and on. During such circumstances, our only question should be, how much can we accomplish with what we have left? The answer, as we can each demonstrate in our daily lives, is: we can accomplish more than most can imagine.

What the Weights Teach

By Mark E. Smith

If you’re going to be somebody, you can’t be just anybody. To be an individual is the art of introspection. You must only be yourself, from within, outward – entirely.

I first began working out with weights in middle school. My school didn’t have an adaptive physical education class, so I was sent across the street to the high school, to its adaptive P.E. class every day for an hour. However, its adaptive P.E. class wasn’t for those with disabilities, but injured jocks. So, there I was, a scrawny, spastic kid with cerebral palsy who used a power wheelchair, in a class with a bunch of football players and wrestlers. And, as kind as everyone was, I never felt so out of place.

Mr. Thompson, a 50-something wrestling coach who stood no more than 5’5”, with bulging biceps and a barrel chest, was our teacher. And, he made no exceptions for me in his class based on my disability – that is, regardless of my cerebral palsy, I was to work as hard as everyone else. To me, that meant I was sure to fail. After all, how could I ever compete in the weight room with able-bodied jocks who were three times my size and years older? But, as Mr. Thompson explained to me, he thought differently. My effort wasn’t based on who everyone else was or what they were capable of doing; rather, my effort was to be based solely on who I was and what I was doing. See, whether I bicep-curled three pounds or thirty pounds didn’t matter to Mr. Thompson. He just wanted me pushing my limits as an individual – entirely.

But, it all mattered to me. I wanted to compete with the big boys in the weight room, to live to their standards. So, unbeknownst to Mr. Thompson, I got a dumbbell set and started working out in my bedroom every evening. And, I was quickly humbled – humiliated, really – realizing that when it came to weights, I was a world away from everyone else. I had eight-pound dumbbells that took all of my strength and coordination to manipulate, and as the days, weeks, and school year passed, I never came anywhere near the weight-lifting prowess of the high school guys – I would clearly never be in the same league as the jocks, forever a weakling compared to them.

However, as that school year ended, I didn’t give up on lifting weights. Instead, I dedicated more time to it during the summer, realizing what Mr. Thompson knew all along: I wasn’t competing against anyone; rather, I was competing against myself to live up to my individual potential, whatever that may be.

I kept working out well into my twenties, truly living up to my own physical potentials, when I then let graduate school, career, and having a family all get in the way of my obligation to pursue my physical best, ceasing working out. What I now know is that the only way we fail at working out is to quit working out – and I failed miserably, tossing away over a decade of discipline because I got distracted by the externalities of life, neglecting my core self.

Nevertheless, by my late thirties, realizing a hole in my life – realizing that if quitting working out meant failure years prior, then starting again meant success – I got back into working out, making not a New Year’s resolution, but a life resolution. I vowed that I wasn’t going to get in shape for any reason except to live up to the potential that Mr. Thompson first taught me decades earlier, that I was ready to not just start anew, but to start anew within myself, where accomplishment wasn’t based on vanity – how strong I was, or how big I was – but simply effort.

Upon restarting working out, I initially felt like I was in middle school again, where the weights that I could handle were low and the progress slow, but I knew that it wasn’t an overnight process, that I had to be prepared for years of grueling work. I committed myself to the lifestyle by putting in an accessible home gym that originally far exceeded my fitness level, knowing that it wouldn’t go to waste, that I was going to work my way up the weights, not over weeks or months, but over years, where I would eventually reach the upper numbers on my gym equipment.

I’ve stayed true to my life resolution – read that, I’ve stayed true to my core self – where hitting the gym didn’t become a passing resolution, but a lasting lifestyle. I both work my schedule around training, as well as work my training around my schedule, and I’ve maintained working out as a life priority for several years now – and it’s become my center, a sort of meditative time, even. What I’ve learned is, if you’re truly dedicated to working out as a life quest – not for vanity or a New Year’s resolution, but for personal growth and introspection – you realize how humbling and grounding it is, where it’s about acknowledging your weaknesses not demonstrating your strengths. Weights don’t lie, and they don’t let you lie to them – and if you try to cheat them, they always win, showing you as a fool. However, if you stick with working out – honestly, introspectively, for years, driven not by living to anyone’s standards, but to simply live up to your own potential – weights truly show you who you are, instilling an unyielding work ethic, teaching goal-achieving patience, building life-inspiring perseverance, and shaping character-based humility. Most importantly, lifting weights teaches you that strength literally comes from knowing weakness and enduring pain – and you can’t maximize the first without embracing the latter. If we wish to grow, we must be prepared to reach deep, where mental, emotional, and physical pain aren’t avoided, but welcomed – in the gym and, more importantly, in life.

I don’t know where any of the jocks from that high school class are today, now in their mid-forties, or whether they have beer bellies or washboard abs. However, as Mr. Thompson taught me, I don’t care where they are today or what shape they’re in. What matters to me is that I know where I’m at: In my gym, door shut, alone, pumping out reps, acknowledging my weaknesses and enduring the pain needed to live up to my sole potentials – entirely.

See, what the weights continue teaching me is not to waste our time trying to be like everybody else, but to truly live up to our own fullest potentials, whatever they may be. And, it’s only in such introspective pursuits that we shift from being anybody to truly being somebody, all within ourselves.

Tennis, Anyone?

By Mark E. Smith

Indeed, the winter holidays are among the most romantic times of the year, lovers snuggled by the fireplace, exchanging precious, heartfelt gifts, a season that will carry their love for decades to come.

Unless, of course, you’re single, curled up in a fetal position on the couch, sobbing to Titanic, wearing a stained T-shirt and sweat pants, longing for that special someone who you know is never going to come along – your dreams slowly sinking like a ship into the abyss that is your life.

While such perspectives surrounding romance around the holidays are exaggerated – for the better and the worst – it can be tough for singles, where parties and celebrations abound with couples, where it can feel isolating to not have someone to kiss when the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. However, the holidays really don’t exemplify single-hood, but merely call attention to it in distinctly seasonal ways.

My single friends have been asking me how I’m handling the holidays as a single guy, a question that I think they ask in hopes that I’ll answer, terribly, as misery loves company. But, instead, I’ve been surprising them with my answer: “I’m still perfecting my individual tennis game,” I say. “I’ve got great coaches, I’m in better shape all of the time, and my serve is getting blistering fast.”

My friends look at me like I’m insane. But, what they are slow to catch onto is that a romantic partnership at its highest level – soul mates – has a lot in common with tennis. See, a successful doubles tennis team isn’t made up of two inexperienced, below-average tennis players who pair together. Rather, a successful double tennis team is comprised of two remarkable individual players, and when two such distinct individuals are paired, they surely form a winning team. Put simply, a team doesn’t create winning players; rather, winning players create a winning team – and it’s my obligation to evolve in the present toward creating the healthiest personal foundations possible for me to be in a life-inspiring relationship in the future.

But, too many people skip the “singles” step. You might say, rather than becoming an excellent individual tennis player, then partnering with someone of the same high skills, they think that simply partnering with anyone will make a winning team. And, it never works – not in tennis, and certainly not in love. As individuals, we must have established our own healthy identities in order for a partnership to work in the long term. I know, we like to think that “love conquers all” and “opposites attract,” but this rarely proves true over time. Instead, mutual respect and common understanding – where core values align, and we inspire each other, not overshadow each other – is where genuine compatibility occurs.

In real world practice, working on ourselves when single – or even when in a relationship! – is the surest way to lasting love, to truly connecting with a soul mate. If I strive to be the best individual that I can be – focused on evolving my emotional health, my skills as a parent, my career, my roles as friend, my place in the community, my spirituality – it sets me up to not just be a better person, but to be a great partner, a soul mate. Again, professional tennis players aren’t looking to partner with amateurs, so if we want to find true success in partnerships, we must first develop ourselves.

Interestingly, few people take this approach to finding love – that is, evolving as an individual before entering a serious relationship. I see it all the time with friends who aren’t focused on their own characters, but who just want “love” – a desperation as haphazard as grabbing a stranger’s hand and running onto the court at Wimbledon, and thinking that the fact that they’re “partnered” means success. Yet, it never does. Sure, they’ll fumble around for a while trying to make it work, but eventually they fail – and just like watching two people who can’t play tennis struggle and fail, it’s equally as obvious when watching two people “in love” struggle and fail. Sure, you can meet someone in a bar or other superficial means and try to make it work, but the odds of finding your true soul mate under such shallow pretense – such a lack of life-inspiring connection – is about as likely as finding a literal professional doubles tennis partner at your local honky-tonk joint.

So, here’s the real question: How do we grow in ways when single that will not only improve our lives and strengthen our characters, but attract those truly suitable to date, ideally finding not just love, but a soul mate?

The answer is, we live the life we wish, ideally to the highest standard. If we live the life we wish, we’re more than half-way on the road to finding a true soul mate. If we’re living to the standards we wish, that’s who we’re going to attract – and, even if we never meet that someone special, we’re more importantly living a truly fulfilling life. I love attending my daughter’s drama events; I love boating; I love traveling; I love Broadway shows; I love reading and writing; and I love charity events. Rather than sit home pining about how I wish I had someone with whom to share all of these interests, I’m out pursuing these interests by myself – and thereby increasing my odds of meeting someone with my same interests because we’re at the same places enjoying the same activities. If you want to meet someone who plays tennis, go to a tennis court! But, again, even if I never meet my soul mate – though, trusting that I might is an important part of the process – I’m still living a content, rewarding life. Living life to the fullest as an individual is the goal, and if love is found with another in the process, then it’s a double blessing.

In these ways, the single life fosters remarkable potential for us in both the present and future. It’s the chance to better ourselves through personal growth, allowing every opportunity to pursue the life we’ve dreamed, where we’re not hinging our ultimate self-fulfillment on a “relationship,” but on living life to the fullest of our individual capacities. And, what’s fascinating is that focusing on ourselves as individuals actually makes us better future partners, placing us in the amazing position to not fall into a relationship that we’ve “settled for,” but to actually discover the one that we’re “meant for.” See, when we’re emotionally healthy and embracing all that life has to offer, love doesn’t stop when we’re single – it begins.

Slow Dancing

By Mark E. Smith

I heard a woman who uses a wheelchair note that among the saddest parts of her having paraplegia is that it’s kept her from slow dancing, that she longs for a cure so that she can slow dance with a man.

It was a heartfelt longing that I’m sure would resonate with those who are able-bodied, as well as some with disabilities, truly personifying the tragedy of disability at the most poignant level: One’s loss of the ability to simply slow dance, life unjustly constricted by a wheelchair.

However, there was another poignant component to the woman’s experience: It was totally specious nonsense – that is, while it sounded true, it was completely false, a made-up construct in her mind about her disability that simply wasn’t based in reality.

See, those of us who use wheelchairs slow dance all of the time. In fact, we ballroom dance, line dance, and generally boogie down like everyone else. And, when a song comes on for a slow dance, the DJ doesn’t kick us off of the dance floor and the party doesn’t stop; rather, when a song comes on for a slow dance, we naturally cuddle up with our partners and sway to the motions of the music. It’s not climbing Mount Everest, nor does it require one to be a rocket scientist. It’s just two people slow dancing, where one – or both – happens to use a wheelchair.

So, why then would the woman see slow dancing as out of the realm of possibilities for her as one who uses a wheelchair, making slow dancing entirely contingent upon her being able to walk?

The answer is, she’s not basing life on its realities, but basing it on her own outlook, one that’s skewed, where she is the only factor limiting her life, tragically defeating her own happiness. We know that, logistically, slow dancing while using a wheelchair is effortless, and we know that the intimate experience of slow dancing with someone you’re passionate about is no less gratifying when seated than on two legs. Therefore, not only is the woman technically wrong about being unable to slow dance while using a wheelchair, but she’s likely going to go through her whole life depriving herself of a wonderfully intimate experience with another person.

Here’s the real question, though: How often do each of us get in our own way – how often do we tell ourselves we can’t slow dance, so to speak? – creating roadblocks in our lives that aren’t based in reality, but in our own minds? I’m not looking for a better job because I know they won’t see me as qualified. I’m staying in this unsatisfying relationship because I know I can’t find better or won’t be happy alone. I’m too physically unfit to get in shape. I could never save up enough money for the down payment on a home. I don’t have time to go back to college at night. …The list goes on and on.

While such life hurdles can seem totally out of our control as we run them through our heads, the opposite is true. In virtually every challenge we face, it’s not life’s circumstances or someone else holding us back, it’s simply ourselves – we’re getting in our own way. In the long term – and goals of great personal reward do take time! – no one but ourselves keeps us from seeking a better job, getting out of an unsatisfying relationship, getting in shape, saving money, or going back to school – we have ultimate power over these and most other aspects of life if we put forth courage, effort, and time. I tell you from my own experience that the only one who’s ever stopped me from pursuing my potentials has been me, and once I’ve pushed that fool out of my way, a world of possibilities has always opened up.

When I look chronologically at among the three biggest seeming challenges that I’ve ever faced – going to college, moving cross country, and becoming a full-time single father – prior to my committing to each them, I could have written a book on why they were completely unrealistic and unfeasible, why I couldn’t slow dance, you might say. Yet, when I got out of my own way, and based my reactions not on skewed emotions, but on reality, and said, “Not only can I do this and survive, but actually thrive,” I succeeded.

Indeed, life is a lot like slow dancing at a wedding reception: The only deciding factor between failure and success is whether we choose to simply move from our table to the dance floor. …And, I say, never pass on an opportunity to slow dance.

Call Me Shallow, But….

By Mark E. Smith

When J.R. Martinez, known from his roles on “All My Children” and “Dancing With the Stars,” was in the hospital recovering from burns over 40 percent of his body, including life-changing facial disfigurement, his mother had a very straight talk with him, one that would guide him to the true depths of his character.

See, J.R. was an American soldier in Iraq, having enlisted at just 19, when his Humvee ran over a landmine, catapulting him to a path of 33 surgeries in 34 months, resulting in the loss of an ear, and permanent facial disfigurement. J.R. describes lying in the hospital, glancing in the mirror, seeing a monster looking back where he once saw a handsome young man – all sending him into a deep, dark depression.

But, J.R.’s mother, older and wiser, saw something else in the situation: The truest essence of her son. “People aren’t going to love you for how you look,” she told J.R. “They’re going to love you for who you are. And, that is a true blessing.”

J.R.’s mom was so right – and J.R.’s success proves that. I mean, the grace and humility with which he presents himself doesn’t make his disfigurement go away; rather, it makes his character shine brighter, where his facial attributes are part of him, but not the sum of him. J.R. is living proof that our exterior facades are just that – facades – and it’s our true character that matters beyond all else.

Yet, not everyone understands this concept. Surely, there are many superficial people in our culture who dwell on appearance alone – their appearance, everyone else’s appearance – and there’s a personal tragedy to it. Literally, when one dwells on appearance, not only can they never be seemingly good enough – after all, there’s always someone better looking by such shallow standards – but they never see others beyond an exterior facade, resulting in never developing deeply sincere relationships.

An acquaintance told me the story of her being a smoking-hot 26-year-old, living life in the fast lane in a Southern California beach community, where her friends and boyfriends were all from wealthy families. She drove nothing but Mercedes since the age of 16; she went shopping virtually every day to keep up with the latest trends; she had breast augmentation, a nose job, and routine Botox treatments; her girlfriends were the hottest of the hot, and they could cut the line at any club; and, she refused to date a guy who didn’t have a buffed body and a Porsche, no exceptions. And, all was moving along perfectly in her world of self-described perfection – that is, until she reached down to grab a CD off of the floor of her newest Mercedes, crossed the lane on a twisting road, and slammed head-on into a guard rail, the impact leaving her a quadriplegic.

But, the accident and paralysis were just the beginning of what she saw as the biggest tragedy of the time. Upon the accident, friends initially rushed to her bedside, and then slowly they stopped coming or calling. While she was in rehab, her friends hit the clubs as usual, and her buffed boyfriend who she thought was Mr. Right (after all, he had a Porsche!), promptly began sleeping with her soon-former best friend. Indeed, she learned that her relationships were as much a facade as her glued-on fingernails and sprayed-on tan. “When we place so much emphasis on our exteriors that we overlook the importance of who people really are on the inside, we take a huge risk,” she shared with me. “Trust me, when your identity and view of others is simply a house of cards, it crumbles fast.”

Going back to J.R.’s mother, she was absolutely right in the scope of her advice: Disability does allow us to have often times deeper relationships, a sort of interpersonal mechanism that protects us from the shallow people among us. Disability is a sort of barometer that gauges the character of of others, only letting the best of the best get close to us – and that’s a great opportunity.

Yet, like all opportunities, we must welcome others accepting us, as-is. J.R. could have used his unique appearance and initial self-consciousness to hide from the world, a way of judging himself and becoming bitter toward others, a presumed lack of acceptance. But, instead, J.R. chose to see the depths of his own character, not just the scars on his face, and he put himself in the world, trusting that he would witness the best in others, as well. Of course, as we now know, his self-acceptance has created universal acceptance by millions of adoring fans, all based on his demonstrating the depths of his character, not an external facade.

As for me, I strive to dress nice and present myself well, but the reality is, I’m a visibly flawed guy with cerebral palsy when viewed on the surface – and I’m OK with that, as the depth of my character hopefully shines through to some. However, when some don’t have the capacity to see beyond my lack of physical perfection, I’m fine with that, too, where I’m glad not to have those “emotionally blind” people in my life. Call me shallow, but if someone is more concerned about the imperfection of my physical appearance than the quality of my character, I don’t want that person around me – and I’m glad that my disability serves as a smoke screen to keep such people away.

What’s really wonderful, though, is that when we recognize the interpersonal value of being embraced for our true character, not our superficial facades, we instinctively return the gesture, being much more open toward others. And, we end up with an amazing exchange – where we’re both seeing each other on the most genuine levels – and that’s how the sincerest relationships are formed. If I accept you for you, and you accept me for me, now we’re truly connecting – and that’s where we all should be in our interactions with those around us.

Someone recently asked me what true acceptance of others really means? And my answer was coy but fitting: True acceptance is the sincerest gift that we can share with another person.

When Life Isn’t Fair

By Mark E. Smith

I had the absolute privilege of visiting a summer camp for children and teens with various forms of muscular dystrophy. It was among the most fun I’ve had, as the campers were so awesome, such spirited personalities, as children are. However, as much fun as MDA camp is for everyone involved, there’s still a looming reality: Most of the campers will pass away by their mid twenties.

There’s truly an injustice to it all, one that, for me, is impossible to explain – that is, the universal “unfairness” that within 10 years or so, many of the campers whom I met will no longer be with us, that not only will their lives have been lost, but with them, we all will have been robbed of their amazing life-long potentials. I mean, their time on this Earth is impacting – I know, they profoundly impacted me – but to think of what these amazing individuals could accomplish over sixty or seventy years – not just twenty – is limitless. Yet, we’ll never have the chance to know because of the inexplicable injustice of a life-robbing disease.

I remember leaving the camp thinking, Cash my chips in now, God, and give my lifespan to anyone of those kids – I’ve had my shot at life, and I’d gladly pass my years left on to any one of those children….

Although visiting the MDA camp was a reminder to me of the seeming inexplicable injustice in the world, the question of universal unfairness is one that I encounter almost every day – that is, why do such terrible circumstances happen to such good people? In the wheelchair world, consumers often share with me that they’ll never understand why they received their injury, illness, or disease, that they wrestle with the injustice of it all. And, I never have a direct answer. But, I do have at least one perspective that touches upon the subject of life’s “unfairness” – and the MDA campers hit home the point for me.

Of course, we know that there are direct attempts to answer why bad occurrences happen to good people. Religion has its answers that run the gamut, from it’s God’s master plan, to it’s bad karma from a previous life. And, science, too, has its direct answers, from cancer being gene mutations, to paralysis being an injury to the spinal cord. These answers, however, still leave intellectual loopholes, where we can look at examples like Dr. Wayman R. Spence, an original anti-smoking crusader, who himself ultimately died of cancer after 50 years of treating others, and it’s truly impossible to see any justice in such an uncanny circumstance – it’s haunting, really.

Still while maybe we will never be able to intellectually answer life’s injustices beyond, Life isn’t fair, we can use coping mechanisms to address them. See, we universally approach life from three perspectives: What is; what can be; and, what should be. And, by understanding the roles that each of the three perspectives play in our own lives, we can better cope with seeming injustices.

What is, is truly the givens, the realities of any situation as known in the present. It’s the, my father has cancer, my husband is an adulterer, my daughter is an alcoholic, I have multiple sclerosis.

What can be, is what we logically can do to address a situation moving forward. It’s the, my father has cancer, but treatment will extend his life; my husband is an adulterer, but I need to get a divorce and find a loyal guy; my daughter is an alcoholic, but getting her into a rehabilitation program is a wise step; I have multiple sclerosis, but medication and therapy may slow its progression.

What should be, is truly wishful thinking, not based in reality, but dwelling in questions of fairness. It’s the, my father shouldn’t have cancer; my husband shouldn’t be a cheater, my daughter shouldn’t be an alcoholic; I shouldn’t have multiple sclerosis.

What’s fascinating is that when we look at the three perspectives – what is, what can be, and what should be – only two are relevant, having any impact or meaning in our lives. The third simply leaves us empty, without the ability to do anything, trapped in despair. Can you guess which two are empowering, and which one is debilitating?

Of course, what is and what can be are very empowering – that is, we can act upon them. However, dwelling on what should be is truly debilitating because there’s nothing we can do but wish upon a seeming impossible, asking ourselves, Why?, silently screaming, It’s not fair! Nothing good comes out of stewing over what should be.

And, that’s what I ultimately took away from my visit to the MDA summer camp. As adults, we’re so caught up in the what should be’s of life – how life is unfair – that we overlook the intrinsic value of what is and what can be. For example, rather than celebrating the current life of our loved ones who have cancer, we dwell upon the unfairness of their pending passing. Rather than moving forward from bad relationships, we stew over how we were wronged. Rather than appreciating our jobs, we focus on any negatives. And, rather than accepting those around us for who they are, we want to change them. That is, we go through life lamenting – often to the point of depression – about how things should be, not recognizing what is or realistically what can be.

Yet, the kid’s attitude at the MDA summer camp was just the opposite – it was totally about what is and what can be, and it was contagious. I only saw life, love, and laughter. It was the most positive place on Earth, making Disney World seem glib. It was a true celebration of living in the moment, where no one questioned what should be, but reveled in what is and what could be. Even we adults ended up with our faces painted, coloring with the kids, and eating watermelon!

Yes, bad things happen to the best people, the weight of the worst can land on our shoulders – and none of it’s fair, justified, or explainable. Yet, we don’t live in a world of equitable should be’s; rather, we live in a world of what is and what can be. And, let us make the most of those, where our days aren’t filled with longing or self-pity, but are celebrated with appreciation and joy for what’s within our immediate presence: The beauty of what life is and can be.

Will It Kill Me?

By Mark E. Smith

Is it literally going to kill me – and, if not, then I’m going through with it for my own betterment and growth. This is the code I strive to live by.

I’ve most recently been tested on this mindset, where I’ve admittedly become obsessed with riding my 6-wheel-drive, amphibious ATV on the 110 acres adjacent to my home. After my obligations for the day are done, I go out to my garage, put on full moto gear, fire up the ATV, and roar up the “Mountain Trail,” as I’ve nicknamed it. I’ve been getting faster and faster on the wooded trail sections, seeing how quickly I can slalom around the oaks without nailing a tree; and, I climb and descend hills too steep and tall to walk up or down.

At times, maybe I’m pushing myself and my vehicle to the very limits, where I drive up to the edge of embankments so high and steep that I can’t see the Earth past my ATV’s hood – just the sky straight ahead – and I summon the courage to simply drive off, where I trust that my driving skills, my vehicle, and the terrain will allow me to make it down unscathed. And, no matter how risky or uncertain a circumstance has seemed, overcoming my fear and tackling terrain I never imagined that I could, has never let me down, proving enormously liberating, where I’m pushing my mind and body far past previous barriers, to great personal growth, where if I can overcome fear and obstacles in my ATV, it carries over into my everyday life. If it’s literally not going to kill me – flying cross country alone for business, giving a talk in front of hundreds of people, being as open and honest as possible with those around me, tackling a seemingly impossible independent living skill, driving my ATV off of a several-hundred-foot-tall embankment, or any other anxiety-filled life experience – I’m going to do it, period. After all, if it won’t literally kill me, then there’s no valid excuse not to push myself forward.

Interestingly, I’ve observed that the process of moving forward once in motion is easy – it’s summonsing the courage to make the decision to initiate momentum in life that’s hard. Trust me, I’ve sat atop embankments – both in my ATV and in life, wanting to twist the throttle and just go for it – where fear had a grip on me, daring me to overcome it. Yet, once I’ve said to heck with fear, and just gunned it, my life in any circumstance has flourished. So, it’s the “saying to heck with fear” aspect that really proves the hardest part of change and growth. Life is really just one, big twelve-step program, where committing to the process of change is the hardest – and most crucial – part.

A lot of times we know what we should do – or must do – but committing to doing it, where we know there’s no turning back, can prove the hardest moves we ever make. It’s among the scariest questions in life – that is, should I or shouldn’t I? – in committing to decisions. I recently had the amazing opportunity to participate as a volunteer at an adaptive water sports clinic by Champions Made From Adversity in Georgia – a fantastic organization. Our crew was one of around six boats pulling those of all types of disabilities on tubes and sit-skis. What astounded me was that, as a seasoned boater myself, I know lots of “able-bodied” people who won’t tube or water ski out of fear. Yet, there I was in Georgia, with peers of all ages and disabilities, who were overcoming all fear to simply tackle what in many cases they never imagined doing – that is, with limited use over one’s body, putting one’s trust in a situation that was literally dragging them into the unknown: Heading out into a gigantic, deep lake at speed, bucking and bouncing, not knowing if they would drown (lifeguards on jetskis did parallel every run, so when someone fell out, rescue was immediate).

What I witnessed was that not only wasn’t anyone harmed – even when they fell out! – but the participants were actually empowered by the experience of overcoming their fear. Make no mistake, some were terrified getting in the tube – it was the hardest part of the process for them – but they still did it. And, we had the privilege of watching their lives change at 20 mph behind a boat, where they realized the liberation of, If it won’t kill me, I’m going to attempt it in an effort to better myself, even if I’m initially terrified.

Just like those with great trepidation to get into the tube at the adaptive water sports clinic, I’ve sat atop harrowing embankments in my ATV, hand on throttle, for minutes at a time, where it’s taken all of my courage to simply gun it, dropping into the unknown – but, I’ve always done it, landing tougher and more confident at the bottom. Yet, what I’ve grown to know is that overcoming short-term fear and stress is the catalyst for long-term growth and success, that getting past fear leads to liberation, no matter in the physical, emotional, or interpersonal. Much like I’ve learned that I can survive descending and climbing through the steepest ravines in my ATV, I can do the same in life, where overcoming initial fear will bring me to amazing vistas.

I wonder, what are you not tackling in your own life simply out of fear of the unknown? If you attempt it, will it literally kill you? If not, then there’s truly nothing stopping you from pursuing what you’ve thought too impractical, scary, or impossible – you, too, can summons the courage, no matter what you’re facing, to not just tackle the unknown, but to actually thrive in the attempt. Once we push beyond anxiety toward change – albeit, physical, emotional, interpersonal, or all in one – and propel ourselves forward in positive directions, the personal rewards are astounding: Vistas in our life appear that we never knew existed.

The No-Excuses Generation

By Mark E. Smith

At some point – maybe 15 or 20 years ago – the meaning of disabled became blurred to me as I began recognizing the seemingly unlimited potentials in my life. And, in more recent years, the meaning has become all but moot to me, merely definitions in medical books, as I’ve widely witnessed the truly unlimited potential in others’ lives, those who have achieved enormous success in every facet, regardless of disability.

Sure, if I put myself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know anyone with a “severe disability,” I understand that his or her perception of disability – or, lack thereof – is pretty grim, with stereotypes of our living limited lives in countless ways, full of dependencies on others, from our families to the government.

And, while these stereotypes may hold true for some with disabilities based on any number of circumstances, there’s a fascinating segment of individuals with “severe disabilities” where limitations and dependencies aren’t the case at all – that is, where disability isn’t disability, where beyond a medical diagnosis, the scorecard of one’s life simply transcends what one might define as disabled, entering the realm of even exceeding the mainstream’s definitions of success.

While many credit the ADA in 1990 as a social door-opener for those with disabilities, it was truly 1970s legislation and that era’s independent living movement in the U.S. that created a generation – born between 1965 and 1975 with “severe disabilities” – who came into a society of every-increasing opportunities, and were encouraged by the spirit of the 1980s and 1990s to fully use every resource they could access. Therefore, we’re now seeing many between the ages of 35 and 45 – born with “severe disabilities” – living such successful lives that it truly questions the common wisdom of what it means to be “disabled.” When we look at the demographics of this generation (a notably small group compared to the overall disability population), it’s statistically distinguished from younger and older generations of those with disabilities based on education level, employment success, wealth-building, physical independence, social status, community involvement, and committed relationships. Indeed, you might say there’s a new generation of young, upwardly-mobile professionals (yuppies) – and they have disabilities.

An example is a family I know who’s truly living the American dream – custom home, pool, luxury cars, children attending a private school, vacation home, easily pulling in a 6-figure income. Oh, and the husband has very severe cerebral palsy. Because of the sensitivity of his position, I can’t tell you his job, but he’s high-up in a certain branch of the government. I recently jokingly asked his wife what she saw in a schmuck like him, and to my surprise, she gave me a candid answer: “I wanted a perfect 10. All my friends were willing to settle; but, I knew I wanted it all,” she told me. “He had to be smart, worldly, a great listener, respected by all, a hard-worker, a great father, and someone who was secure enough to support my dreams, too. And, I found it all in him, my perfect 10.”

Her ability to look at the complete picture of her husband, not his medical diagnosis, is such a profound insight – and it’s the same insight that’s defining this generation that’s arguably transcending “disability.” Put simply, this generation of those with disabilities isn’t dwelling on “disability,” but looking at the whole of life, where limitations are replaced by abilities, where dependency is replaced by independence. And, the results are astounding, where many with severe disabilities haven’t just beat all of the grim statistics of those with disabilities living in America – as in lower rates of education and higher rates of unemployment and poverty – but actually exceed the mainstream when it comes to education, income, and social mobility.

Interestingly, beyond a visibility to friends on social networks like Facebook, this generation generally avoids the limelight, not partaking in inspirational stories on television or boasting of their accomplishments in public venues. Instead, there’s a quiet humility to their successes, where they are the families next door. They demonstrate that they’re not out to prove anything to anyone, but that they’re simply living their best because it’s the right way to live, regardless of disability.

The question, however, remains: How has this generation reached the higher rungs of status and economics with inherently severe disabilities?

Again, the answer includes a combination of timing and mindset. The 1970s cracked the door of opportunity for those with disabilities, and this generation burst it wide open, seizing every opportunity in sight. Disability wasn’t seen as an obstacle, but just a trait, where all other abilities, talents, and opportunities superseded it. As one of my buddies put it, ”I wasn’t worried in the least about my spina bifida in college – I was focused on building a career.”

And, it’s a mindset that we all can learn from: Disability doesn’t have to be a defining state or ultimately limiting condition, but, in many ways, just a label – a label we can choose not to represent who we are. That is, we can have a disability, but not be “disabled” by it. As another friend of mine put it, “Why would I choose to be disabled when, with some effort, I can be educated, employed, wealthy, and in love – and then just have disability as a sidebar to it all?”